Director: Agnieszka Holland
Writer: Scott Abbot, James Wong, Ira Levin
Producer: Robert Bernachhi, Mariel Saldana, Zoe Saldana, Cisely Saldana, Tom Patricia
Stars: Zoe Saldana, Patrick J. Adams, Carole Bouquet, Christina Cole, Jason Isaacs
A pregnant woman comes to believe that a coven of witches has designs on her unborn child, and her husband may be a part of their cult.
Watching “Rosemary’s Baby” was a mistake. Not the 2014 NBC miniseries mind you, but the 1968 feature film (review here). Let me explain.
Whenever the phrase “supposed to” is used while criticizing a remake, it means that the new version is being funneled through an unfair frame of expectation based on a previous interpretation of the same material. Commentaries devoted to remakes are filled with vitriol from angry fans predisposed to hating a new version of anything for being too different from the original, not different enough, or just plain existing at all. It is a conscious choice to set one’s self up for disappointment by crossing arms and harrumphing as a knee-jerk reaction instead of openly accepting a different vision as an entirely separate entity.
After night one of NBC’s “Rosemary’s Baby” aired, I found myself belonging to the minority of those willing to cop to liking the first two hours despite a vocal public consensus of underwhelmed apathy or sneering dislike. I enjoyed the well-cast performances, the sharp cinematography, and felt I understood why certain aspects of the source material were finessed to fit into a new timeline and setting. Others could not help but to measure Zoe Saldana’s characterization against what Mia Farrow did with the same role, and had numerous other unmet “supposed to” qualifications based on a 46-year-old standard that the updated work was not required to adhere to anyway.
But heeding my own advice to view the miniseries as if Roman Polanski’s film did not exist had “Rosemary’s Baby” on its way to satisfying modest standards for broadcast television horror with its modernized take on Ira Levin’s classic novel. Taking 2014’s “Rosemary’s Baby” with fresh eyes had me in a better position to enjoy it as its own thing, without feeling a need to place it side by side with the original.
Knowing that I would have to defend the favor I had been developing for the miniseries, I decided to revisit the 1968 movie in between nights one and two. The intent was to gain better comparative insight into what was changed and perhaps perspective on why. Instead, refreshing my memory of the first film made me see how the 2014 adaptation failed to deliver a similarly resounding impact.
While I still feel that the update does several things well, my opinion of “Rosemary’s Baby” 2014 went from thumbs up recommendation to middling uncertainty. In the process, it reaffirmed my stance that unless the intention is be upset over inferiority, it is always best to leave conceptions about an original as far back as possible before going into a remake.
With an additional 45 minutes to fill over the other movie’s runtime, commercials excluded, “Rosemary’s Baby” extends the backstory of several secondary characters to add more mystery to Roman Castevet and to make Guy more tortured over his willful involvement in the coven’s conspiracy. Additional layers to these personalities are welcome at first, but what happens is that the miniseries forgets the first word of the title and ends up turning itself into “Everyone Else’s Baby.”
Mia Farrow is in every single scene of Roman Polanski’s film. The entire narrative is intentionally structured to be seen solely through Rosemary’s perspective. The blinding of Guy’s rival and Hutch falling into a coma are events relayed over the telephone. The reveal of what lies inside the black bassinet is told through Rosemary’s expression. Terror comes from the viewer’s mind racing alongside Rosemary’s through all of the terrible possibilities taking place behind those hidden corners of her world.
In addition to making Rosemary the viewer’s anchor, what this approach does is it heightens her fearful paranoia and in turn, the viewer’s. Because Polanski never reveals the context of private conversations between Roman and Guy, and never shows the Castevets unless Rosemary is with them, there is always a fleeting glimmer of possibility that Rosemary might be imagining a ridiculously wild premise to explain the odd things she observes. That sense of mistrust and uncertainty creates dread inherently, and instills a feeling of immersion in a confusing reality where Rosemary is the only character who can be believed. This develops into an unbreakable bond between Rosemary and the audience, through a feeling that they are experiencing her trauma together.
Moving the camera away from Rosemary distracts her emotional arc, forcing a reliance on more action-based conflicts and interpersonal struggles to fabricate tension. It makes for a miniseries with drama tuned to more modern entertainment sensibilities where physically seeing is preferred above mentally inferring, yet it misses triggering that touchstone of fear over confronting horrors unseen and unknown.
The contemporary “Rosemary’s Baby” instead takes its thrills from visceral shocks that push broadcast standards about as far as they can go before an FCC censor has a stroke. A frantic suicide opens part one, and any time the tempo starts dragging due to extensive exposition and dialogue, the film has a knack for sensing the slowing speed and drops in a gory death to pepper the pace.
There is definitely more of a slasher tinge to the film as opposed to pure psychological thriller. Surprise moments like an impromptu throat slitting tick the checkbox for those horror hounds who need jolting imagery for satisfaction. A Quasimodo-like goon added for oddity value is more confusing than anything, but swapping Rosemary’s uncooked steak for raw bird innards is one way the remake manages to enhance its creep factor visually.
One thing that does work in the miniseries’ favor is the move from New York to Paris. While true that it adds a sense of alienation and isolation to Rosemary’s situation, the real benefit is how the foreign locale makes a recognizable reality feel unfamiliar and occasionally uninviting, at least to audiences unaccustomed to French scenery. Imposing architecture, spoken accents, and the overall setting give the production a unique style that sets its mood apart from the original in a distinctive way.
When Margaux Castevet prepares fertility soup with tannis root for pregnant Rosemary, the exoticness of the environment enhances the believability that a foreigner would accept such strange holistic medicine at face value, passing it off as having “Old World” cultural appeal. The same goes for the exaggerated theme of semi-erotic seduction. Margaux passionately kissing Rosemary during hypnotic moments or briefly seducing Guy takes a different tone given how signs of affection attributed to French custom are usually perceived. The tease of mesmeric sexuality would have a much different feel had the setting remained in North America.
However, one change that does not work is making the Castevets into elite socialites of immense wealth. The lasting fright of the 1968 film was the insinuation that average friends and Everyman acquaintances were just as likely to be devil-worshippers as they were church-going Christians. Minnie Castevet was a wacky, yet familiar feeling, next-door neighbor with old lady fashion sense whose hobby was knitting. The coven assembly during the finale consisted of blue-hairs in cat glasses and regular folks who looked like anyone’s aunt or uncle. As much as anything, this idea of inescapable hopeless that nowhere was safe and no one could be trusted made that image chilling.
The miniseries does not suggest the same level of pervasive evil. These Satanists are manicured men and women in tailored suits sipping champagne in private piano lounges. They look sinister, but their menace comes across as distant and nowhere near as threatening as those who are so much more deceitful about their unholy affiliation.
Coming with that differentiation is a focus on materialistic seduction being the prime motivator for making a deal with the devil. John Cassavetes played Guy with dark desperation and a slightly sleazy air suggesting an unlit fuse. He was more than just eager to make it as an actor. He didn’t care enough about his wife for his conscience to ever be a determining factor in deciding to align himself with Roman.
Patrick J. Adams turns Guy into more of a patsy, which also paints him as a pushover. Depicting his moral struggle in the aftermath of Rosemary’s impregnation is intended to develop sympathy, but the subplot does not take the idea far enough to develop into anything beyond time taken away from Rosemary.
Which is a chief drawback of the miniseries’ attention on ancillary characters. Giving purpose and personality to these other players requires removing some of both from the primary protagonist, and that is a mistake.
An example of where such an adjustment creates an unnecessary gap is the addition of Commissioner Fontaine, a police inspector who actually does believe Rosemary’s crazy allegations. There is a moment during the second half where Rosemary breaks in her growing suspicion that witchcraft is enveloping her, and Fontaine becomes the person attempting to convince her that the coven conspiracy is real. When Rosemary is depicted doubting her convictions like that, it introduces questions about her perception and wisdom, which diminishes her value as a heroine since the audience knows her instincts are correct.
Is “Rosemary’s Baby” a tale more effectively told by the 2014 miniseries than by the 1968 theatrical release? No. Yet in spite of story changes that significantly alter critical character motivations, the setting and the photography renew a fair portion of that fumbled atmosphere. And the goal to offer a moderately reworked take on a familiar story is still evident in a production with sincere energy displayed on both sides of the camera.
I would be curious to know how “Rosemary’s Baby” 2014 might play independent of Polanski’s film coloring the viewing. I do suspect that had I not been reminded of what makes the original one of the most well-respected horror films of the 20th century, the miniseries would be better able to stand on its own as a great looking production with sensible intentions and unique value. Although regardless of its best efforts as a film, and my own initial intention to leave impressions of the 1968 adaptation outside the door, “Rosemary’s Baby” has a hard time stepping outside of an unavoidably large shadow no matter what.
Review Score: 65